Why Box's $125M Round Is Good for Software

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 31, 2012

From The News Desk

Box is announcing today that it has raised a whopper of round of capital: $125 million, mostly from growth investor General Atlantic. GA's Gary Reiner is going to join the board -- his experience alone is a coup without the cash. Reiner is the former CIO of General Electric. As such, he's exactly the kind of guy that Box CEO Aaron Levie is trying to convert to a cloud way of life.

The round is unquestionably good news for Levie. That kind of cash can buy a lot of sales people, infrastructure, global expansion, and most of all breathing room while you try to push a stodgy industry towards a long-promised sea change in the business of software. And those are all things he plans to use the cash for. (No doubt, there was some partial liquidity of early employees going on here as well.)

But it's also good news for the software world, and pretty much anyone who uses a computer at work. The industry is finally -- after at least two rounds of false starts -- on the cusp of actually creating a new wave of modern software companies that are not only cloud-based, but have dramatically rethought consumer-modeled user experiences, and are also tailored for a mobile/tablet work force from the ground up.

Most everyone buys that thesis. There are varying degrees of agreement on what exactly that means for the old guard like SAP, Microsoft, and Oracle -- but most everyone accepts these are long-heralded tectonic shifts that will create market disruption and billions of dollars in market value over the next decade.

But here's the problem: This revolution moves more slowly than a game of Red Rover at an old folks' home. And once anyone makes headway there is an increasingly irrelevant software giant from the old world who is ready to just plunk down hundreds of millions -- or billions if need be -- to pick these competitors off one-by-one.

Sure there's the promise that they're just taking this burgeoning new class of software and giving it to their armies of sales people to push out to the market faster. But that's the extreme optimist's case. Once they get acquired, most people in the industry view these once pioneering companies as trapped assets that will never live up to their potential-- or worse, they're just road kill.

It's hard if you are, say, Yammer to turn down $1.2 billion when you're doing far less than $100 million in annual revenues and still have an uncertain future as a stand alone company. But as I've written before, if everyone takes Yammer's enviable way out, the revolution -- inevitable as it may be -- could be pushed off another decade. There's enough to lose that software incumbents could continue to pay crazy valuations just to take more players out of the market.

My assumption has long been that Box will wind up purchased by someone in this ground war. File sharing just doesn't seem to be central enough to how a business runs -- and yet file sharing is key for a company like, say, Salesforce which wants to push more into collaboration. People tend to want to collaborate around things like files. And in the final analysis, Box may wind up a part of the next generation Oracle -- or part of the actual Oracle itself.

But not yet. So far, Levie has shown a remarkable restraint against acquisition offers and with this round -- on top of the existing $160 million raised -- he is signaling two things. The first is he's not going to sell unless something goes wrong. He's likely priced himself out of an easy acquisition, without an embarrassing climb down in valuation and with that kind of cash, there's no immediate need for such a climb down. "If you believe we are only a few years into this huge transition, then Box is a fraction of the size it should be," Levie says. "Between Workday, Salesforces, NetSuite and Jive -- we're just seeing a small snapshot of what's possible. That makes it a fairly easy decision to go for getting bigger."

The second is even better -- it telegraphs that Box has put off going public. That's welcome news as there were all sorts of noises and reports by "unnamed sources" that Box was eyeing an IPO pre-the Facebook clusterfuck. (TM)

Levie said in an interview yesterday afternoon that those reports were always exaggerated, and he's maintained that any IPO is at least 18 months away. "We've always said basically the same thing, that we're not going public in the near term," he says. When asked how those rumors got so widespread, he said: "Sometimes I can give people the sense that, shit, anything can happy at any minute. I tend to throw people off with our.....dynamism." (If that quote doesn't make a lot of sense, watch this clip of Levie at our last CEO Supper Club. He lives his life incredibly put it euphemistically.)

While Groupon proved the folly of going public too soon if you're a consumer company, there is a legitimate school of thought that there's more value in enterprise companies going public as soon as the market will allow it. When large corporations are buying from you, the safety of knowing you are publicly traded and the ability to look at your financial staying power is a powerful part of the sales process. This is a big reason why Jive's CEO Tony Zingale pushed that company out -- even to the objections of some bankers.

Levie says being private definitely slows down the sales process. As Box gets in the mix for larger and larger deals, his team has to spend time with those customers' CFOs, helping them understand the health of Box's business. He has to be incredibly open and candid with the numbers -- eradicating some of the benefits of being a private company to begin with.

But while being public would be a lot easier, the benefits of staying private far outweigh it, Levie says. In particular, he has very ambitious plans for global expansion and has just started investing in Box's European footprint. That's typically something that loses a lot of money before it makes it. "That and three or four other initiatives we are working on are just better done as a private company," he says.

Taken along with the news of Asana's new $28 million round last week -- and similar conviction not to sell -- the news also represents a continued shift in the types of people who the industry allows to run software companies. While it's become de rigueur over the last few years for product based CEOs to stay a top consumer companies, the enterprise world has long been dominated by salesmen -- and for good reason. This stuff is still mostly sold and not bought. And your typical product CEO isn't exactly at home hitting the golf course with stodgy old CEOs.

Even more modern cloud players like Workday, NetSuite, and Salesforce are run by the kind of people you'd expect to be running software companies.

But Levie is stubbornly clinging to the job, and that all but ensures that Box will remain a very different kind of company than what the enterprise world has seen before -- for better or worse. "You've seen the new jackets I've been wearing right?" he says about his attempt to look more of the part. As noted before, he's also getting plenty of gray hair. But dress him up however you like, and the twitchy, hand-waving Levie will always be the polar opposite of your traditional smooth talking, Amani suit-wearing software sales-guy.

It's still very uncertain whether Fortune 500 companies will sell to a guy like Levie. But he has one thing going for him: A lot of CIOs were sold horrible software by enterprise sales guys of the past.

(Photo credit: Matt Lynley of Business Insider.)